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Published in Print: February 4, 2004, as Paige Calls For Wider Support Of School Choice

Paige Calls For Wider Support Of School Choice

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Secretary of Education Rod Paige last week called on critics of the new federal school voucher plan for the District of Columbia to get on board or get out of the way.

Just five days after President Bush signed the voucher program into law as part of an omnibus spending measure, the nation's top education official also urged other states and localities to follow Congress' lead in offering private school choices to students from low-income families.

In a strongly worded speech in Washington, Mr. Paige said voucher opponents were mouthing "old saws" by portraying the planned five-year experiment as "a covert plan to finance private, especially Catholic, schools." Arguing that the federally financed program in the nation's capital was not about "dismantling the public school system," the secretary said those who sought to block the program would be guilty of unconscionable "obstruction and sabotage."

"I respectfully warn those in Congress and the District who ponder such continued political warfare that their actions will not stop us," Mr. Paige said during the Jan. 28 speech at the Heritage Foundation, a leading conservative think tank.

'Just the Beginning'

Voucher opponents announced shortly after the Senate gave final passage to the $14 million-a-year program on Jan. 22 that they would push to repeal it. (See "Federal Plan for Vouchers Clears Senate," Jan. 28, 2004.)The program will provide students in Washington with vouchers of up to $7,500 a year to attend religious or secular private schools. It is to be operated under a formal agreement between Mr. Paige and Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

Noting that President Bush's proposed budget for fiscal 2005, to be unveiled this week, would include $50 million for a "choice incentive fund," the secretary called on school leaders around the country to contemplate ways to offer students broader educational options.

Marc Egan, the director of the National School Boards Association's anti- voucher initiative, said that he viewed the prospects that Congress would support such a program as very doubtful.

But Mr. Paige said such a program was necessary because of "the urgent need for education reform" in many districts—not just in the District of Columbia.

"This is just the beginning," he said.

Vol. 23, Issue 21, Page 25

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